Book Review - April 2010
by Do-While Jones

What Darwin Got Wrong

Here is our mixed review of a book written by evolutionists against the theory of evolution.

Last month we were excited to read in New Scientist that evolutionists were about to publish a book questioning the power of natural selection. 1 Naturally, we pre-ordered it, and it arrived just after we published last month’s newsletter. Now we have read it, and we can tell you about it.

Here’s our conclusion for those readers who don’t have the patience to read our whole review of What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini: It presents a unique argument proving that natural selection cannot be responsible for the diversity of all life forms on Earth. It is particularly compelling given the fact that the authors do not believe in creation or intelligent design. Unfortunately, the book is difficult to read, as you will discover from the quotes in this review. So, if you don’t have the patience to read our entire book review, which explains their argument in simpler terms, then there is no chance you will have the patience to read the whole book.

Prefatory Comments

Just so you know where they are coming from, the authors begin by saying,

In fact, we both claim to be out-right, card-carrying, signed-up, dyed-in-the-wool, no-holds-barred atheists. We therefore seek thoroughly naturalistic explanations of the facts of evolution, although we expect that they will turn out to be quite complex, as scientific explanations often are. 2

This is the first hint that they don’t have any explanation for how evolution could have happened. They just know that Darwin was wrong.

We close these prefatory comments with a brief homily: we’ve been told by more than one of our colleagues that, even if Darwin was substantially wrong to claim that natural selection is the mechanism of evolution, nonetheless we shouldn’t say so. Not, anyhow, in public. To do that is, however inadvertently, to align oneself with the Forces of Darkness, whose goal it is to bring Science into disrepute. Well, we don’t agree. We think the way to discomfort the Forces of Darkness is to follow the arguments wherever they may lead, spreading such light as one can in the course of doing so. What makes the Forces of Darkness dark is that they aren’t willing to do that. What makes Science scientific is that it is. 3

We have several things to say about this.

First, it is an explicit admission that there are evolutionists who believe it is right to hide the truth from the public. All criticism of Darwin must be suppressed.

Second, if being unwilling to follow the facts wherever they lead makes one unscientific, then the evolutionists who are trying to suppress the science against evolution are being unscientific.

The authors then summarize their general approach.

For example, we will run a line of argument that goes like this: there is at the heart of adaptationist theories of evolution, a confusion between (1) the claim that evolution is a process in which creatures with adaptive traits are selected and (2) the claim that evolution is a process in which creatures are selected for their adaptive traits. We will argue that: Darwinism is committed to inferring (2) from (1); that this inference is invalid (in fact it’s what philosophers call an “intensional fallacy”); and that there is no way to repair the damage consonant with commitment to naturalism, which we take to be common ground. Getting clear on all this will be a main goal of the book.

Why, you may reasonably ask, hasn’t this tangle of connections been remarked upon before? 4 [italics theirs]

This tangle of connections has been remarked upon, frequently, by creationists. They call it “circular reasoning” rather than “intensional fallacy,” but it is the same thing. How do Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini answer their own question?

But, of course, everybody is busy and you can’t read everything. Nor can we. 5

If they had read things written by the Forces of Darkness (censored by evolutionists), they would have know this has often been remarked upon before.

Skinner and Darwin

The premise of their book is that Darwin got wrong what Skinner got wrong. This makes perfect sense to the book’s authors because they know what Skinner got wrong; but we suspect the general public isn’t as familiar with Skinner or his learning theory as the authors are. Therefore, the general public is likely to get lost right off the bat.

Comparing Darwin to Skinner smacks of a shady debating technique called “guilt by association.” The fact that Skinner was wrong certainly does not prove that Darwin was wrong.

Although guilt by association isn’t valid, it isn’t completely without merit. Consider this analogy: A man goes to a doctor complaining of certain symptoms. The doctor has previously cured another patient with nearly identical symptoms. Just because the second patient has many of the same symptoms of the first patient, it does not prove that the second patient has the same disease and can be cured the same way. It would be irresponsible of the doctor to assume the second patient has the same disease without doing further tests. On the other hand, it would be just as irresponsible for the doctor not to consider the possibility that the second patient has the same disease and test for it.

The authors of the book recognize that Skinner’s theory and Darwin’s theory are remarkably similar. They know that Skinner’s theory is wrong because Skinner made a logical mistake. This suggested to them that Darwin may have made the same mistake. Rather than simply assuming that Darwin’s theory is wrong, they carefully examined Darwin’s theory to see if Darwin made the same mistake, and came to the conclusion that he did.

It is tempting for us to explain in detail how Skinner’s theory is similar to Darwin’s. But, if we do that, we can’t avoid falling into the same pit that the book falls into. You could very easily get lost in the details. So, we will give you a simple comparison and encourage you to read the book for more details.

Skinner’s theory of learning is based on the notion that an animal is born with a mind that is a blank slate. Random events happen to the animal, which have good or bad results. The animal remembers the results, and learns to do things with good results and avoid doing things with bad results.

For example, a bear cub goes for his first walk. In the process, he randomly steps on sharp stones and smooth stones. The sharp stones hurt his paws, but the smooth stones don’t. Therefore, he learns to walk on the smooth stones and avoid the sharp stones.

The general principle is that random events (for example, walking on stones) produce good and bad results (paw comfort or paw pain) which are filtered for maximum benefit. This is similar to Darwin’s theory in which random differences in individuals are filtered by natural selection for maximum survival benefit.

Both theories are so obviously true that they are immediately accepted as being true and become ingrained in the scientific community. But then, the more the theories are examined, the more problems become apparent. Perhaps someone noticed an adult bear casually walking on some broken glass with no apparent signs of discomfort, which Skinner’s theory can’t explain. On closer examination, Skinner’s theory was found to have many unexplainable contradictions. For some time the contradictions were ignored as anomalies; but eventually the fundamental flaw was discovered, and the theory was rejected.

In the same way, problems with Darwin’s theory kept being discovered. The problems kept being ignored. But now there are just too many problems to ignore. It turns out that Darwin made the same mistakes Skinner made.

Multiple Causes

One of the mistakes Darwin made was that he tried to explain evolution in terms of a single cause—namely natural selection. The book says this over-simplification is as foolish as trying to explain Napoleon’s loss at Waterloo on a single factor. They say any attempt to prove that Napoleon lost simply because the ground was muddy will fail, even if mud was a contributing factor.

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini recognize that natural selection alone can’t possibly be responsible for all the diversity of life we see today. Since they believe in evolution, they assume that natural selection must simply be one of many factors involved; but they don’t know what the other factors could possibly be. So, they wrote the book to inspire other evolutionists to stop wasting time on natural selection and look for whatever other explanations there might be.

Ironically, that’s what we’ve been saying for fourteen years. Like Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, we don’t propose any other solution. We merely point out that Darwin’s theory of evolution is not consistent with demonstrable scientific principles and should be abandoned. Nothing can be gained by trying to prove a false theory is true.

Artificial Selection

Artificial selection is sometimes used to prove the reality of natural selection. We have occasionally said that artificial selection is simply natural selection on steroids. Natural selection would do what artificial selection does, if given enough time. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini disagree. They argue that the significant difference is intention. Artificial selection strives toward the goal of the breeder. The breeder intends to produce offspring that are bigger, smaller, faster, stronger, or whatever. Natural selection has no goal. That is a significant difference, in their opinion.

Free-Riders

One of their main arguments against natural selection has to do with “free-riders.” Darwin called this, “correlation of growth,” but the authors surprisingly never make the connection. The basic idea is that when breeding for one characteristic, another unrelated characteristic comes with it. The secondary, unintended characteristic just comes along for the free ride.

Back in the days before contact lenses, it was easy to tell who the smart kids were—they were the ones wearing glasses. Even now, the stereotypical image of a nerd is a kid wearing glasses. We aren’t convinced that there actually is a connection, but for the sake of illustration, let us pretend that there is, just to explain their notion of free riders. Intelligence can provide a survival advantage; but poor vision doesn’t. Intelligence is the ticket to survival; but poor vision gets a free ride along with intelligence.

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini argue that the existence of so many free-riders make it impossible to determine which characteristics actually improve the fitness for survival. The unintended side-effects may completely overwhelm the advantage of the primary mutation. (They would no doubt object to our use of the term, “unintended,” because of their adamant denial of any intention of the primary mutation, but we can’t think of any other way to say it.)

Other Explanations

Every time they refer to God, it is in connection with the Tooth Fairy. They clearly don’t believe in creation. They aren’t too keen on intelligent design, either. They are committed to a natural explanation. They consider natural selection to be supernatural, too.

Their argument against natural selection has to do with the fact that genes can’t remember what happened to them in the past, and don’t have any future aspirations. They do a good (but tedious) job of explaining why natural selection, is confined to the present, so it can’t be responsible for evolution. Their explanation is very repetitious; but that may be a good thing because it might take multiple explanations for the truth of it to sink in.

Having ruled out supernatural explanations, and recognizing that natural selection is fatally flawed, they look for other explanations. Since scientists know less about prenatal development than most other areas of study, that’s where they turn.

If they want a bumper sticker for their theory, we suggest, “Evolution begins at conception.” Of course, that would be totally unacceptable to many evolutionists because of the obvious implications regarding abortion; but it is the most concise explanation we can give of their theory. They are favorably disposed to the notion that the environment somehow causes inheritable changes during the period of time between conception and birth. Although it is well-known that prenatal experience can influence the individual being born, it is unclear as to how much of that experience is inheritable.

So, the next best summary of their explanation is, “History did it.” Creatures are the way they are because that’s just how it happened. Prenatal experience and other environmental factors shaped each creature into what it is, and we can’t really explain how (and there certainly isn’t any “why”). The only thing that makes, “History did it,” more palatable than “God did it,” is the absence of God. But it seems to us that if “God did it,” is an unacceptable explanation, then “History did it,” is no more satisfactory.

Our Summary

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini correctly recognize that natural selection is an inadequate and unscientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth. They do not believe this because they are Christians—they aren’t Christians. They are even more radical atheists than Darwin and Dawkins. They believe there is absolutely no purpose whatsoever in life. The mild suggestion of purpose in Dawkins’ Selfish Gene theory, and the implication in Darwin’s theory that natural selection causes things evolve upward to a goal are totally unacceptable to them.

Furthermore, they don’t believe that there can be any simple, single explanation for the diversity of life on Earth. Therefore, they believe that there must be some sort of unknown, purely natural, complex combination of prenatal environmental influences that are responsible.

Their Own Summary

We’ve done our best to summarize their argument. Their argument against natural selection is valid, but hard to follow. They have no positive explanation of how evolution could have occurred. But, in fairness, we will close by giving them the last word. Here are the last three paragraphs of their book.

Surely, some of the interactions between organisms and their environments are casually implicated in the evolutionary fixation of some phenotypic traits; if that weren’t so, it really would be miraculous that there are reliable correspondences between the two. But there’s no obvious reason to doubt that these interactions are simultaneously structured at many levels of analysis; and it’s entirely possible that the story about the aetiology of organism/environment matches may differ from one kind of phenotypic trait to another. If so, then the right answer to “What is the mechanism of the fixation of phenotypes?” would be: “Well, actually there are lots.” We repeat that this is not in the least to suggest that the fixation of phenotypes is other than a deterministic, causal and lawful process through and through. No Tooth Fairy need apply. What is denied, however, is that there is a unitary theory (e.g. a unitary theory of organism-environment interactions) in terms of which most or all such phenomena are explained; or that the various kinds of accounts that explain them generally imply that there are laws of exogenous selection.

Perhaps that strikes you as not much; perhaps you would prefer there to be a unified theory—natural selection—of the evolutionary fixation of phenotypes. So be it; but we can claim something Darwinists cannot. There is no ghost in our machine; neither God, nor Mother Nature, nor Selfish Genes, nor the World Spirit, nor free-floating intentions; and there are no phantom breeders either. What breeds the ghosts in Darwinism is its covert appeal to intensional biological explanations, which we hereby propose to do without.

Darwin pointed the direction to a thoroughly naturalistic—indeed a thoroughly atheistic—theory of phenotype formation; but he didn’t see how to get the whole way there. He killed off God, if you like, but Mother Nature and other pseudo-agents got away scot-free. We think it’s now time to get rid of them too. 6

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Footnotes:

1 Disclosure, March 2010, “Natural Selection Shocker”, http://www.scienceagainstevolution.org/v14i6n2.htm
2 Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong, 2010, Profile Books Ltd ., page xiii
3 ibid., page xx
4 ibid., page xv
5 ibid.
6 ibid., page 163